There are very few reasons for me to greet 4:30 a.m. willing and it wouldn't surprise many that one of those reasons is soccer.
Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, marked the day of the 2015 MLS Cup. The Columbus Crew would host the Portland Timbers for a game that was touted as one not to miss. And I found myself sitting in the press box at MAPFRE Stadium for the event.
It's been two years since I've been to MAPFRE Stadium. The last time I sat with the American Outlaws as the USMNT took on Mexico before World Cup 2014. It was a night to remember; stadium rocking, that infamous scoreline of 2-0, Clint Dempsey missing the penalty, the U.S. clinching their berth to the World Cup.
The last time the Columbus Crew found themselves playing for an MLS Cup title was back in 2008. So it seems particularly sweet to not only be in the final, but to be hosting it on their home turf. The Portland Timbers had a lot to prove as well; the team would mark their first cup final with the trip to the Midwest. Columbus Crew fans were more than ready to have their team lift the cup again, out in force in the chilly weather hours before the kick off. Portland's Timbers Army weren't to be upstaged either; filling their section of the stadium and once again proving themselves as one of the loudest supporters in the league.
Two hours before the game was set to start, inside the stadium was a quiet calm. Arriving to my assigned media spot, I took the time to just enjoy looking out at the pitch. If you've never been to MAPFRE Stadium, I suggest taking an opportunity if you ever get one. No matter if you're a Crew fan or not, there's something to be admired about one of the oldest soccer specific stadiums in the league.
It did not stay quiet for long, however, as fans began filing into the stadium followed by players taking the field. In one of the craziest starts, Portland scored 30 seconds into the game. They grabbed their second goal in the 11th minute. It would take the 20th minute for the Crew to answer with a goal. The second half saw continued craziness on the field, but neither team would net another goal. After 90+ minutes the Portland Timbers had won the MLS Cup.
I think this MLS Cup shows, if anything, the growth of the league over the past 20 years. This event was massive, touting a sold out MAPFRE Stadium. Even sitting in my media seat, I felt the excitement from both ends.The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing. And it was a well fought game by both teams - chippy from both, of course, but still the game was entertaining and I'm sure people will be talking about the ref calls (or the lack of certain ones) for awhile.
But to play devil's advocate, this game also showed how much MLS has to improve on, especially when it comes to refs. Missed calls, plays getting out of hand ... while it may have been a great night for attendance and showing how the popularity of the sport as grown in the U.S., the officiating was atrocious. Linesmen missing calls, Jair Marrufo was all over with his decisions, and frankly there were times play was uncontrolled.
When it was all said and done and I headed toward the exit, the Portland Timbers were crowned MLS Cup Champs for the first time in their franchise history. Would I say that my 5 hour drive to and from Columbus was worth it? Yes, definitely. The experience was one I'll never forget and not just because of my media pass. These are the types of games you are glad you are able to see. And it was one crazy game that had the stadium shaking.